China's Economic Development: An Overview
CRS Report for Congress
China’s Economic Development: An Overview
Wayne M. Morrison
Specialist in International Trade and Finance
Since the initiation of economic and trade reforms in 1978, China has been one
of the world’s fastest growing economies. According to Chinese data, real GDP grew
at an average annual rate of 10% between 1979 and 1996, increasing the real size of the
Chinese economy by five times its 1978 level and substantially raising Chinese living
standards. Much of China’s recent economic growth has been driven by a high rate of
capital accumulation and large productivity gains, both largely the result of economic
reforms. Foreign investment and trade have played a major role in China’s economic
growth. U.S.-China commercial relations have sharply expanded; China is now the 4th
largest U.S. trading partner. Many analysts predict that China’s economy will likely
continue to experience rapid growth in the near future, especially if economic reforms
are expanded and deepened. As a result, the importance of China as a U.S. trading
partner could be greatly enhanced. U.S.-Chinese economic relations have been a major
issue in the annual congressional debate on extending China’s most-favored-nation
(MFN) status, as well as congressional oversight of the Administration’s policy towards
China’s application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
China’s rapid rise as an economic and trade power has been of great interest to U.S.
policymakers, especially because such growth has led to a substantial increase in U.S-
China economic relations (as well as friction over a number of issues). The prospect of
future high levels of Chinese economic growth could have important ramifications for
U.S. economic interests. An overview of the causes of China’s rapid growth is useful in
understanding the implications of China’s future economic development.
China’s Economy Prior to Economic Reforms
Prior to 1978, China maintained a relatively centrally planned, or command,
economy. Most of the country’s production (industry, agriculture, etc.) was directed and
controlled by the central government which set production goals and controlled prices for
nearly all goods and services. The Chinese government sought to make China’s economy
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relatively self-sufficient. As a result, it limited trade to obtaining only those goods which
could not be produced domestically. During the 1960s and 1970s, the central government
mobilized domestic savings and undertook large-scale investments in physical and human
capital in order to support rapid industrialization. China’s massive investment in heavy
industry helped produce an average annual GDP growth rate of about 5.3% from 1960-
1978. However, China’s economic policies kept the Chinese economy relatively stagnate
and inefficient, mainly because these policies provided little or no profit incentives for
firms and farmers, competition was virtually nonexistent, and price and production
controls caused widespread distortions in the economy. China’s investment in heavy
industry generally came at the expense of agriculture, which lagged in production for
much of the 1960s and 1970s.
China’s Economic Reforms
Beginning in 1978, China launched several economic reforms, including the
introduction of price and ownership incentives for farmers and the establishment of four
special economic zones in China for the purpose of attracting foreign investment,
boosting exports, and importing high technology products. Additional reforms, which
sought to decentralize economic policymaking in several economic sectors (especially
trade), followed in stages. Economic control of various enterprises was given to
provincial and local governments which were generally allowed to operate and compete
on free market principles, rather than under the direction and guidance of state planning.
Additional coastal regions and cities were designated as open cities and development
zones, which allowed them to experiment with free market reforms and to offer
incentives to attract foreign investment. In addition, state price controls on a wide range
of products were gradually phased out or eliminated.
The Results of Economic Reforms
China’s economic reforms are largely credited for spurring the rapid economic
growth that has since occurred. Between 1979 and 1996, real GDP grew at an average
annual rate of 10% (see table 1); since 1991 it has averaged 11.7%.1 In real terms,
China’s economy in 1996 was more than five times its 1979 level. China’s real per
capita GDP doubled by 1987 and doubled again by 1996, indicating a substantial increase
in Chinese living standards. According to the World Bank, China’s economic growth
raised nearly 200 million people out of extreme poverty.
Table 1. China’s Average Annual Real GDP Growth:
Time PeriodAverage Annual Real GDP
1These are official Chinese government estimates. Some economists, however, question
the accuracy of China’s real GDP growth data, arguing that it may be somewhat overstated.
Sources: The World Bank, World Development Report (various issues); and DRI/McGraw-
Hill, World Economic Outlook, Second Quarter 1997, p. B3-B4 and A3. Data are based on
official Chinese statistics and should be interpreted with caution. Several economists believe
Chinese real GDP growth rate data may be somewhat overstated.
The Rise in Foreign Trade
Foreign trade played a major role in China’s economic growth. Total Chinese
merchandise trade (exports plus imports) rose nearly 10-fold, from $29.7 billion in 1979
to $289.9 billion in 1996; China’s ranking as a trading economy rose from 27th to 10th.
China’s exports over this period rose at an average annual rate of 15%. Exports as a share
of GDP rose substantially as well, from 5.9% in 1979 to 19.2% in 1996.
The Growth in U.S.-China Commercial Relations
The growth in the Chinese economy has helped boost U.S.-China economic relations
(see table 2). U.S. exports to China grew from $0.8 million in 1978 to $12.0 billion in
1996; imports grew significantly faster, rising from $0.3 billion to $51.5 billion. The
importance of China as a trading partner grew considerably. China went from the 32ndthth
largest U.S. export market in 1978 to 15 in 1996, and from the 57 largest source of U.S.
imports to 4th. China in 1996 accounted for about 1.9% of U.S. exports and 6.5% of U.S.
imports. China has become an important source for a variety of products for the United
States, namely toys and games, footwear, textiles, and electronics. China has become an
important U.S. export market for such products as aircraft, fertilizers, textile fibers, and
Table 2. U.S.-China Trade: 1978-1996
U.S. Exports to ChinaU.S. Imports From China
TotalsU.S.As a % ofTotalsU.S. RankAs a % of
($Billions)Ranktotal US.($Billions)Total U.S.
1978 0.8 3 2 0 .6 0.3 5 7 0 .2
1987 3.5 1 8 1 .4 6.3 1 2 1 .6
1996 12.0 1 5 1 .9 51.5 4 6.5
Source: U.S. Commerce Department
Causes of China’s Rapid Economic Growth
Economists generally attribute much of China’s rapid economic growth to two main
factors: large-scale capital investment (financed by large domestic savings and foreign
investment) and rapid productivity growth. These two factors appear to have gone together
hand in hand. Economic reforms led to higher efficiency in the economy which boosted
output and increased resources for additional investment in the economy.
High Savings and Foreign Investment
China already benefitted from a high rate of savings at the beginning of the reform
period. Domestic savings as a percentage of GDP stood at 32% in 1978 (nearly as high
as Japan’s at the time). Most Chinese savings prior to 1978 were generated by the profits
of State-owned enterprises (SOE), which were used by the central government for
domestic investment. Economic reforms, which included the decentralization of economic
production, led to substantial growth in Chinese household savings (which now account
for half of Chinese domestic savings).2 As a result, savings as a percentage of GDP has
steadily risen; it was 42.3% in 1996, among the highest savings rates in the world.
China’s trade and investment reforms and incentives led to a surge in foreign direct
investment (FDI) and have been a major source of China’s capital growth. Annual utilized
FDI in China grew from $636 million in 1983 to over $40 billion in 1996, making China,
in recent years, the second largest destination of FDI after the United States. FDI
accounted for nearly 13% of China’s total investment in 1996. About two-thirds of FDI
in China has come from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The United States is the third largest
investor in China, accounting for about 8% of total FDI. Foreign funded enterprises have
been responsible for a large part of China’s export boom. According to Chinese data, the
share of total Chinese exports produced by foreign funded enterprises has risen from 0.1%
in 1980 to 40.9% in 1996.3
Several economic studies have concluded that productivity gains (i.e., increases in
efficiency in which inputs are used) were a major factor in China’s rapid economic
growth. For example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that from 1952
to 1978, capital accumulation accounted for 65% of China’s output increase (productivity
and labor input growth accounting for 18% and 17%, respectively). In contrast, between
of China’s increased economic output, while increases in capital and labor inputs
accounted for 46% and 13%, respectively. The IMF study concluded: “Although growth
rates in both capital and labor inputs rose significantly in 1979-1994, the productivity
growth differential appears to explain the bulk of the difference in output growth between
2The World Bank, China 2020, 1997, p.5.
3East Asia Analytical Unit, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. China
Embraces the Market: Achievements, Constraints. and Opportunities, 1997, p. 181.
pre-reform and reform periods.”4 A World Bank study made similar conclusions,
estimating that China’s (total factor) productivity grew by more than 3% annually from
1985-1994 (a rate described by the World Bank as “exceptional by international
standards”), and attributed one-third of the increase in China’s output to increased
The improvements to productivity were largely caused by a reallocation of resources
to more productive uses, especially in sectors which were formally heavily controlled by
the central government, such as agriculture, trade, and services. For example, agricultural
reforms boosted production, thus freeing workers to pursue employment in more
productive activities in the manufacturing sector.6 China’s decentralization of the
economy led to the rise of non-state enterprises, which tended to pursue more productive
activities than the centrally controlled state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Additionally, a
greater share of the economy (especially the export sector) was exposed to competitive
forces. Local and provincial governments were allowed to set up and operate various
enterprises on market principles, without interference or subsidies from the central
government. One study by F.C. Perkins found that export-oriented firms in China have
experienced significantly higher productivity growth than non-exporting firms and that
nonstate-owned enterprises firms have experienced higher productivity growth than the
SOEs. 7 Perkins cites autonomy in decision making and exposure to freer domestic
markets as the key factors in productivity growth by the non-SOEs. Competition is often
a key factor in productivity growth because it forces firms to improve efficiency by
adopting new technology and processes; it also forces inefficient firms to restructure (or
exit the market), freeing resources for more productive uses.
The Future of Chinese Economic Development and Reforms
DRI\McGraw-Hill, a private economic forecasting firm, projects that China’s real
GDP growth will average over 9% annually through the year 2000, and about 7.5%8
thereafter, through the year 2015. At these rates, China could more than double its GDP
in less than 10 years. The continued growth of the Chinese economy and its trade flows
will likely raise the importance of China to the United States as an export market and as
a source of imports, although trade tensions will likely increase if China’s markets remain
relatively closed and if the bilateral trade deficit continues to expand sharply.
4Hu, Zuliu F and Khan, Mohsin S. Why Is China Growing So Fast? International
Monetary Fund Staff Paper, Vol. 44, No.1. March 1997, p. 116.
5World Bank, World Development Report, 1996, p. 25.
6From 1978 to 1994 the proportion of the work force engaged in agricultural production
dropped from 71% to 54%. A large share of agriculture workers found employment in locally
controlled enterprises or foreign joint ventures.
7 Perkins, F. C. Export Performance and Enterprise Reform in China’s Coastal Provinces.
Economic Development and Cultural Change, v. 45, April 1997, p. 502.
8DRI/McGraw-Hill. World Market Reports, July 1997.
Many economists argue that capital accumulation will remain an important factor in
promoting rapid economic growth in China. China’s high savings rate and ability to
attract large FDI should enable it continue expanding the growth in capital per worker.
However, the relative importance of productivity gains to increased output is likely to
grow, and such gains will likely be largely dependent on the extent and pace of future
economic and trade reforms. Exposing a greater share of the Chinese economy to market
forces (such as liberalizing its trade regime) would likely lead to greater economic
efficiency, and hence, higher output. The Chinese government’s commitment to making
substantial new economic reforms, however, remains uncertain. On the one hand, the
Chinese government announced in September 1997 that it would significantly restructure
its SOEs system, further reform its banking system, expand the rule of law, and cut
average tariffs rates from 23% to 17%. Yet, many analysts remain skeptical over China’s
willingness to initiate significant new economic reforms, due to the government’s stated
fear of massive bankruptcies by SOEs, and stated plans to adopt protective industrial
policies for certain “pillar industries,” such as autos and electronics. China’s offer of tariff
reductions are viewed by some as insignificant in lieu of China’s widespread appliance of
non-tariff barriers and investment restrictions. Finally, past announcements of major
economic reforms by the Chinese government have not always been followed by concrete
Congressional Interest In China’s Economic Development
China’s rise as an economic power has been of interest to Congress in recent years,
due in part to the rapid growth in U.S.-Chinese commercial relations. Several Members
have expressed concern over the surge in the U.S. trade deficit with China ($39.5 billion
in 1996), widespread Chinese trade barriers, and inadequate protection of U.S. intellectual
property rights in China. Some Members have sought to link these (and certain other non-
trade) issues to the renewal of China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) status. Supporters of
continued MFN treatment of China have argued that terminating it would undermine
forces in China pushing for greater economic reforms, hurt certain U.S. exporting sectors,
raise prices for several consumer products, and lock U.S. firms out of a potentially
lucrative market. In recent years Congress has given greater attention to U.S. policy on
China’s application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ensure that the
Administration presses China to makes extensive economic and trade reforms (especially
those which generate significant trade opportunities for U.S. firms) before obtainingth
membership. One bill in the 105 Congress, H.R. 1140 (Representative Gephardt), would
require congressional approval prior to U.S. support of China’s WTO accession.